What exactly is a crop circle?
A circle. In a crop field. At least, that’s what a crop circle was when the term was first coined. Now it seems to cover all manner of markings, from splodges to squiggles to complex configurations of circles, squares, triangles, lines, crescents, rings, and kitchen sinks. In an effort to keep up with the development of the designs, various other terms have been made up, including ‘pictogram’, ‘agriglyph’, ‘crop glyph’. Call us old-fashioned, but we’ve decided to stick with ‘crop circle’. ‘Crop formation’ seems to be the most recent variant, or ‘formation’ as it’s known to its friends. We like and frequently use that one, too, being one of said friends.
Small single circle from Weston Turville, Bucks, August 2005. “The crop circle enigma” ™ began with small single circles and circle-sets. Back in the day a single circle was known as a ‘singleton’, and was affectionately termed a ‘valerie’ by some researchers. Photograph of the Weston Turville circle by Darren Francis, who as far as we’re aware was the only person to visit this formation aside from its maker and the farmer as he combined it.
Aren’t all crop circles man-made?
Oh leave it.
Aren’t all crop circles made by aliens / ultraterrestrial intelligences / earth energies / satan / gaia etc?
But I’ve heard tell of ‘genuine crop circles’. What is meant by this? What constitutes a ‘genuine crop circle’?
That’s a toughie, and the answer depends very much on who you speak to. First off, ‘genuine crop circle’ generally means ‘crop circle not made by people’. The main problem with this is that said term assumes or implies that there are accepted criteria by which one should judge such things, factors that can be assessed and tests that can be employed to give a definitive answer either way. Quite a few people claim there are such tests and factors, though nobody seems to be able to agree on exactly what they are. Studies of lay, design aspects, and analysis of crop samples have all been cited. Others employ all manner of gizmos, black box technology, sacred rites, dowsing, and the like. The subjectivity of these methods is a sticking point, as is the fact that different people look for different things. We’ve read field reports of the same formation by different parties, which vary to such an extent that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were referring to separate circles. Terms like ‘genuine crop circle’ and ‘genuine phenomenon’ also imply that one believes that crop circles are not, or cannot, be man-made; some of them, at least. Not everybody adheres to this view. Similarly, some researchers consider all crop circles ‘genuine’ until there is evidence to suggest otherwise, others that all crop circles should be assumed man-made until evidence suggests otherwise. Most sit somewhere in the middle. Horses for courses.
Okay. If you can’t tell us what constitutes a ‘genuine’ crop circle, at least tell us what constitutes a ‘good’ crop circle.
It depends what you like. Personally we go for precision, neatness and sophistication of lay, and aesthetically pleasing design. Yes, we know that’s vague, but it is difficult to define. Here’s an example of a circle we like: Hackpen Hill, 4th July 1999 (photo by Peter Sorensen). There are some formations rated highly in croppiedom which we personally don’t get along with, for example Bythorn, Cambridgeshire, September 1993 (though we’re not that keen on pentagrams as a rule), the East Field ‘pictogram of pictograms’ of 1999, the ‘dolphins’ of 1991 (ersatz hippy tat), anything involving ladders or eyes, and the Beckhampton ‘Charm Bracelet’ of 16 August 1992 (cheesy crap – nice lay, though), to name a few. A lot of it comes down to personal taste, and we suspect that for all the posturing, most pronouncements about particular formations and their place in the phenomenon as a whole are aesthetic. This is simplifying the point somewhat, though crop circles are artistic as much as anything else. One human circlemaker we spoke to (as opposed to all the non-human circlemakers we’ve spoken to; haven’t you?) said he considered crop circle researchers to be more akin to art critics than paranormal investigators, and we do think there is a great deal of truth in this.
Wasn’t there some guy who analysed crop samples and concluded that some formations couldn’t be made by people?
Doctor William Levengood, together with Nancy Talbot and the less-famed John Burke, collectively known as the BLT Research Team. We were just about to get on to them. When they’re not making sandwiches (and nobody else has made that joke) they examine plant-samples from crop circles. They report a number of biological changes to the plants including elongation and bending of nodes, expulsion cavities (tiny holes around the nodal area), shrivelled seed-heads, cellular alteration, and severely stunted or accelerated germination, deducing that such anomalies are consistent with brief exposure to some form of intense microwave energy. An awful lot has been written and said about the BLT results over the years. We hope to be able to present a more detailed overview of their work on this site in the future.
But didn’t the good doctor analyse lodging and find the same anomalies he reports in crop circles?
There were patches of ‘strange lodging’ which Levengood examined and in which he found anomalies akin to those found in crop circle samples, leading him to speculate that occasionally what is defined as lodging may in fact be caused by similar ‘forces’ as crop circles (if indeed one believes – as Levengood seems to – that the circles are made by said ‘forces’). This doesn’t necessarily mean he considers all lodging to be malformed crop circles, or – to look at it another way – that he believes crop circles to be sophisticated lodging. Wait for our BLT analysis to make this aspect clearer. What’s that, you say? Their same results found in lodging? Their ‘strange lodging’ clutching at straws? And people call us cynics.
Is there a simple way to tell which crop circles are man-made and which aren’t?
This is probably the most commonly asked crop circle question, and we’ve dealt with it at various points elsewehere on this page and on this site. We find all alleged ‘authenticity’ tests to be lacking to one degree or another. Put another way, in circle-speak the term ‘genuine crop circle’ means “I don’t know who made this”, though it sometimes means “I know who made this but I don’t believe them because I think it’s such a great circle”. It may also mean “this formation is genuine because it fits into my theory”, or conversely “this formation is man-made because it doesn’t fit into my theory”.
Genuiness is in the eye of the beholder. All crop circles are genuine, but some crop circles are more genuine than others.
How long have crop circles been appearing?
The answer to this one is relatively straightforward, compared to some of these questions. Contrary to popular view, crop circles did not – as far as we can tell – first appear in fields close to the Percy Hobbs pub in the mid 1970s. There are many (largely anecdotal) accounts of formations throughout the 20th century and earlier.
The sign of The Percy Hobbs pub, near Cheesefoot Head, Hampshire. In the 1980s this pub sign looked rather different. In the mid-1990s it was re-drawn (as pictured here) into a stylised representation of Doug Bower, in honour of the pints he sank and plans he hatched in the snug, before he kicked ass at darts and dominoes then ventured into the fields. Photograph by Darren Francis, Summer 2006.
The problem of course is that the further back in history one goes, the more hazy the reports get, though there are photographs of circles throughout the world from the 1960s onward at least (many reproduced – poorly, we regret to add – in Terry Wilson’s book The Secret History of Crop Circles); the difference, of course, being that back then they were called ‘UFO nests’ and not ‘crop circles’. Croppie lore speaks of a photo from the 1930s of a formation in Sussex, though we haven’t seen this one ourselves. An article from Nature magazine in 1880 by spectroscopist J Rand Capron details an investigation into circles that appeared near Guildford, Surrey, in that year. Similar reports have been found in the 1686 book The Natural History of Staffordshire by Robert Plot, this time detailing grass formations (or were they?). That’s the kind of evidence we want to see ourselves, instead of taking every historical mention of a mark in a field (or even not in a field) and interpreting it as crop circle lineage. It might be, but it equally might not be.
Then you have the famed ‘Mowing Devil’ woodcut of 1678, though we have reservations here; the crop appears to have been cut rather than swirled flat, and so – unlike the Capron or Plot reports – doesn’t tally with what one might now define as a crop circle.
The Mowing Devil of 1678. We were quite shocked to discover that there have been four different versions of the Mowing Devil image doing the rounds over the years. This is a reproduction of the authentic one. We’ve noticed that almost all accounts we’ve read of the Mowing Devil in crop circle books quote from the cover text only (which you can read on this image), such that one might be forgiven for not realising that the true account is considerably longer. The full text has been reproduced in a few books, though – for example The Field Guide by Rob Irving and John Lundberg (pages 27-31) or Terence Meaden’s Circles From The Sky (pages 186-188).
We’d also repeat a point made by Bob Boyd in The Circular # 31 (May 1998) that, if crop circles have been appearing so long, it seems strange that Charles Fort – exhaustive archivist of tales of all things wyrd – makes absolutely no mention of them. We suspect that, even if they have been appearing as long as the evidence might suggest, it’s never been in anything approaching the numbers or complexity we see today.
Like all croppies worth their salt we are intensely interested in reports that pre-date the 1970s. The sheer number of reports is certainly suggestive, though the intangibility of almost all of them is frustrating. Pre-1970s circles are another item on the long list of things we hope to do a more detailed feature about in the future.
How many crop circles appear each year?
It varies. Up until the mid-1980s, less than ten circles appeared annually in the UK on average, and non-UK circles were comparatively rare. From the late 1980s to the late 1990s annual numbers did steadily climb, peaking in 1999 then dropping a little to between a hundred and a hundred a fifty a year in the UK for the early part of the 2000s. The last few seasons (we write this paragraph in July 2008) have seen quite a sudden drop from this, with UK circles averaging about 55 in 2006 and 2007. There has been a great deal of speculation as to why this might be. Theories range from fewer circlemakers out in the fields to sunspot and other cycles, or of the ‘genuine’ circlemakers having taken a backseat and leaving the fields to the ‘hoaxers’ (or vice versa). After the sudden drop in 2006 it was speculated by Andy Thomas in particular (see article here) that the dry Summer had something to do with it; “It is widely recognised that the majority of crop formations cluster around the main aquifiers… in the UK, and many believe that natural energy generated by their water contributes to their creation. In 2006, the UK suffered the driest conditions since 1976 – could this have been an important factor?” Although Andy makes an interesting point here, it is perhaps worth pointing out that 2007 had about the same number of circles as 2006 and it absolutely bucketed down with rain for most of the Summer.
We can’t leave the subject of annual circles numbers without mentioning that we still see it claimed that over 300 circles appeared in 1989, with double that number in 1990. This is entirely down to Terence Meaden’s cataloging methods; Meaden would count (for example) a quintuplet as five separate circles, a triplet as three separate circles. This means that circle numbers from any year in which Meaden was cataloguing data – up to 1991 in fact – should be treated with suspicion.
How big was the biggest crop circle ever recorded?
Ah, the ‘Size Queen croppie’ question.
There have been a few very long pictograms – for example East Field, Alton Barnes, Wiltshire, 12th June 1999 (1040′), Ashbury, Oxfordshire, 26th July 1994 (approximately a quarter of a mile), Etchilhampton, Wiltshire, 30th July 1996 (eight tenths of a mile, which might sound impressive but the actual design was just a path with 13 circles spaced along it) though due to the nature of these designs the actual amount of flattened crop is relatively little. The formation with the greatest amount of flattened crop is generally reckoned to be East Field, 9th July 1998 (see photo by Werner Anderhaub), which covered approximately 6000 square metres. Though this was a fair few seasons ago we think the record still holds, but would be curious to see how it compares to – say – the August 2001 Milk Hill formation. Speaking of which, although Milk Hill 2001 holds the record for the most circles in a single formation (409) its diameter is ‘only’ 767′. Compare this to the Windmill Hill Julia Set of July 1996, which – although it had less than half the circles of its Milk Hill sibling – spanned anywhere between 800′ and 1,000′ tip to tip depending on who you ask. Or compare it to the Alton Barnes, Wilts formation of 7th July 2007; 1033′ foot tip to tip, with approximately 130 circles. So which is bigger? Which we guess means that ‘size’, as much as ‘genuineness’, is relative. Would you like it any other way?
See also the article Size Matters Not for further discussion of this topic.
Hackpen Hill, 24 May 2008.It’s been pointed out that this formation is the ‘spine’ of the Milk Hill 2001 formation, and that it’s about the same size. It is on both counts. Why do croppies find this formation less interesting than its Milk Hill mother? We don’t know. If size is your game, it’s a good circle. If geometry is your game, it’s a good circle. If lineage is your game, it’s a good circle. If precision is your game, it’s a good circle. If ‘the season is young and I want my circle fix’ is your game, it’s a good circle. To tell the truth we know the reason for the neglect entirely. Croppies are fickle and get bored. Want the next bigger and next better thing and next thing. Don’t see what is in front of their eyes. For curio value we’d also add that this was in the same field as the 1999 Hackpen Hill formation mentioned above in this page. Photograph by Peter Sorensen.
How significant is the placing of crop circles?
Without knowing who / what put a particular formation in the field, this is an impossible question to answer. We do know, however, that factors as mundane as availability of fields containing particular crop types, or ease of access to those fields or to points where the maker may remain unseen or may leave a vehicle, are considerations.
A number of studies have been made into the positioning of crop circles in relation to each other, the most impressive of which is probably this one. Freddy Silva has also written about this puzzling crop circle aspect, with particular regard to formations from the 1999 season (The Cereologist # 31, pages 7-11, and also in Secrets In The Fields) and his findings – that circles reference not only prominent landmarks but also the location of the next circle – make for fascinating reading. However, he does ignore the vast majority of 1999 formations along the way, getting around this by dismissing them as ‘hoaxes’. The question of whether circlemakers deliberately position formations in relation to ancient sites and other prominent landmarks has also been addressed in The Field Guide (pages 167-168) and elsewhere.
It might also be worth mentioning in passing here that in any given season formations will be trumpeted as aligned to something or other – and indeed they will be aligned to that something or other (usually a barrow, stone circle, hill or such) – though the majority of circles aren’t aligned to anything. Or at least anything that gets noticed. And who bothers writing about alignments in a circle that doesn’t have any? Nobody. Except us.
Crop circle of “mysterious origin” that appeared opposite Silbury Hill 6 July 2000. Yes, it’s aligned to Silbury Hill. But so are the tramlines. Does that mean that the farmer was guided by arcane forces when he sowed his field? Photograph by Peter Sorensen.
Where is the best place to see new crop circles?
Theoretically, one can see crop circles wherever there are crop fields, and our advice is to check the ‘new formations’ websites throughout the Summer to find the nearest formations to you. However, a much simpler answer for lazy croppies is that if you visit the Avebury / Alton Barnes area any time between late June and mid-August you are guaranteed to see circles. Visiting on most Saturday and Sunday mornings in this period will also guarantee that you can see fresh, ‘appeared the night before in a field that was being watched and then dawn came and there were hundreds of orbs’ circles.
So why do most crop circles appear on Friday and Saturday nights?
Because some ETs / faeries / earth energies / demons / field pixies have day jobs.
What do the farmers make of it all?
Farmers? Who are they? Oh you mean those annoying sorts who sometimes turn up to spoil croppies’ fun when they’re out trampling through crop fields? Who sometimes even have the sheer cheek to throw people out of fields or cut circles before hundreds of people visit and stomp the crop to chaff and dust?
Actually we do feel very sorry for farmers, especially those in Wiltshire. Bear in mind that some of these people have had crop circles on their land every single year, and in some years multiple formations, for nearly two decades. Is it really surprising that they might be getting sick of it?
While we’re on the subject of farmers, we’d add that although it says in the Crop Circle Code of Conduct and in many croppie books that visitors should always ask permission from the farmer before entering a formation, we know very few croppies that do so – and this includes some very prominent researchers, some of them published authors. As such we find it bemusing that croppies will bemoan the illegal activities of ‘evil hoaxers’ before engaging in illegal activities themselves by trespassing on farmers’ property.
How comes nobody has ever been caught making a circle?
They have; see here.
Why do people who research crop circles call themselves cerealogists?
Because it adds the illusion of science to them and to their efforts. Actually, few people seem to use this term any more; the PC term at present is ‘croppie’. Though commonly believed to have been co-opted from Trekkie, we personally prefer the theory that ‘croppie’ is a compound term derived from ‘crop circle groupie’.
‘Cerealogist’ is sometimes spelt ‘cereologist’. What’s that all about?
When the journal of the same name was first published, it was spelt ‘cereologist’, though as they note in their editorial in issue 3, “‘a number of learned readers have pointed out that it is etymologically incorrect” and that it should in fact be ‘cerealogist’. It fluctuated after that – indeed the cover-banners are spelt differently depending on which issue you look at. There was actually a reader-poll, the results of which favoured ‘cereologist’. We disagree; surely the term is derived from the word ‘cereal’, and therefore ‘cerealogist’ makes more sense. Michael Glickman also favours ‘cerealogist’, as he notes in his column in issue 7 of said organ (reproduced in his book Cornography). We welcome this; it’s nice to agree with Glickers on something for a change.
Does this etymological pondering matter? Of course it matters. Even if it is a made up word.
Is there any proof that some crop circles are made by aliens?
And before you ask, complexity of design in a formation is not proof that it was made by aliens. Anomalous plant effects reported in formations are not proof that formation was made by aliens. Balls of light seen in and around a formation are not proof that those balls of light were guided by aliens (or indeed were aliens themselves) and made that formation. Crop circles that depict aliens are not proof that aliens are taken to self-portraiture. Not knowing how a crop circle got into a field in the middle of the night is not proof that it was put there by aliens.
The famed Crabwood formation of August 2002. A depiction of a Grey in a crop field isn’t proof that the formation was made by Greys. Going by that logic, Greys also made the film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. We’ve also heard it argued that this formation – when taken in light of the message that accompanies it – is in fact a warning against Greys put there by another race of aliens (Pleidians, Nordics, Sirians, Reptilians, Arcturans, take your pick). This isn’t quite as far-fetched as it sounds, when you consider what shifty buggers Greys are, with rectal probing and embryo-theft and cattle mutilation listed amongst their hobbies in the contact ads.That doesn’t of course mean that we think this formation was made by aliens – of whatever race – because we don’t. We’d love to be able to, but simply don’t see the evidence. Aerial photo of the Crabwood formation by Peter Sorensen.
In amongst all the bickering and gossip and who-made-what allegations and insulting each other on internet forums and gallivanting around Wiltshire lining the pockets of the local landlords, does anybody actually do any research into crop circles anymore?
Something we’ve wondered ourselves, it has to be said.
A related point – why do most croppies drink so much?
There are several answers to this one:- 1. In order to support their theories; 2. Because sitting in the Barge Inn getting sloshed is easier than field work; 3. Because after one has visited the latest formations, there isn’t much else to do other than retire to your tent / B&B, or have a bevy or two; 4. Because crop circles are as much a social activity as anything else.
We’d also like to float a theory here; never mind the notion that some farmers are in cahoots with those making formations on their land so they can charge people to go in (which, considering the ire with which some Wiltshire farmers mow formations as soon as they arrive seems unlikely these days), what about the Wiltshire pub owners? They employ people to make formations, croppies flock to have a look and then hit the boozer. Utterly implausible but it just might be true. Which could be said to eloquently sum up the whole phenomenon, in a way.
The sign of the Barge Inn pub, Honeystreet, Wiltshire. This photo was taken (by Darren Francis) in Summer 2007, at which point the sign had recently been re-done. Many croppies will no doubt remember the older version, of which we’ll have a (non-digital) image somewhere and may load at some point as well.
Is it true that making crop circles can be as much if not more spiritually rewarding than investigating them?
Some might say, and so we’ve heard.
But why do so many croppies end up making circles themselves?
Like most of these questions there are several answers, some of them contradictory. The obvious reason is to test the plausibility of the ‘crop circles are all man-made’ hypothesis, to see what is and isn’t possible to create in a field at night. We think this a reasonable venture, personally, and find it bizarre that some croppies do not consider it worthwhile as research, even if they wouldn’t want to have a go themselves. Some leave it at this; others go on to make circles season after season. Some because they think it’s fun, some because they find it rewarding, some to see what they can get away with, some because they enjoy seeing other croppies making fools of themselves, most because they’re croppies too and love crop circles as much as the rest.
So these people who make crop circles… do they use strimmers, then?
We have actually been asked this question. And no, they don’t use strimmers (though if they did it might explain the ellusive ‘trilling sound’). Farmers have occasionally been known to use strimmers, though, when faced with the latest glorious message from the stars in their fields.
Why do crop circles only appear in the Summer in the UK?
Erm… because crop circles need crops? Before we elaborate we should say that we’ve been asked this question, too. It isn’t quite as dumb as it sounds (though it’s still pretty dumb).
Though the ‘because crop circles need crops’ rule applies, formations do of course appear in Spring in oilseed rape and (late Spring) in barley and in early wheat, before the fields give way to the most glorious designs which are as a rule in wheat. The (very) occasional Autumn formation might turn up in maize or grass, and Winter grass formations have also – abeit rarely – been spotted. Also worth mentioning here is a barley formation that was discovered on 15th November 2007 near Manton, Wiltshire (picture left and article here) and which is undoubtedly the latest in the year that a UK formation has appeared.
Manton, Wiltshire, 15 November 2007. Considering how cold we remember it being in the UK when this appeared, we don’t envy who / what made it in the slightest. Aerial photograph by Peter Sorensen
Why does The Barge Inn have a circlemaking equipment store next door to it?
Coincidence. Besides, it isn’t a circlemaking store, it’s a country supplies store and sawmill. That said, we wouldn’t like to speculate how many wood-planks may have been ‘borrowed’ from outside the place in the dead of night over the years.
Can I tell you my personal theory as to what crop circles mean and what makes them, even though I have absolutely no evidence for it and have never even been in a crop circle?
No. It isn’t that we don’t care, more that we don’t have the time. We hope you understand.
It’s all done by the military, though, isn’t it?
We really must be going now.
Why are you guys so cynical?
There’s a fine line between cynicism and credulity. We’ve been accused of being cynics, debunkers, disbelievers, and worse. We’re none of these things. We’re agnostics. We do think that something very interesting is going on here. We know we understand some of it, we think we understand other bits, elsewhere have an inkling, sometimes don’t have a clue. A bit like everybody else, really, but at least we’re honest.
First written Summer 2003; revised intermittently since then; most recent tarting Summer 2008.
NB: Perhaps it is only fair to say that a couple of the statements in these photo comments aren’t actually true.